Esau was one of the most important figures in the Old Testament, yet he is also one of the most misunderstood. As the eldest son of Isaac and Rebekah, and the older twin brother of Jacob, Esau had a right to inherit great blessings and responsibility. However, due to a fateful exchange between Esau and Jacob, the older brother lost his birthright and blessing to the younger. This event set the stage for much sibling rivalry and tribal conflicts that followed.
To properly understand Esau, we must examine key passages about his life and character. When studied closely, we see that Esau was a complex man – impulsive yet caring, shortsighted but still honorable. While he made mistakes, through repentance he overcame family grudges and reunited with his brother. Esau provides a sobering lesson on the dangers of living for the moment versus carrying out God’s higher calling.
- As Isaac’s firstborn, Esau was entitled to a great inheritance and responsibility which he traded for temporary gratification
- Esau’s impulsive and sensual nature led him to sell his birthright to Jacob for food
- Later, Jacob deceived Isaac into giving Esau’s blessing to him, fueling great resentment
- Esau cared for his father and sought to gain back the blessing, but repented after vowing to kill Jacob
- The reunion of Esau and Jacob models reconciliation and overcoming generational dysfunction
- Esau settled apart from Jacob yet maintained relationship – God can use flawed people if they turn from sin
The story of Esau begins even before his birth, as Rebekah was pregnant with twins who struggled in her womb (Genesis 25:22). God explained this represented two separated nations developing. Esau was born first, making him legal heir to the family birthright. This included a double portion of the father’s inheritance along with leadership of the family (Deuteronomy 21:17). As patriarch Isaac’s eldest, Esau was in line to receive tremendous wealth and responsibility.
Yet Esau developed a very different temperament from his refined brother Jacob. Genesis 25:27 describes Esau as “a skillful hunter, a man of the field” while Jacob was “a mild man, dwelling in tents”. Esau became a rugged outdoorsman and grew to despise the more subdued life of a shepherd like his brother. This contrast in personalities would soon lead to conflict.
Trading the Birthright
The most defining moment in Esau’s life was when he impulsively traded his entire birthright to Jacob for a simple meal. Here is the account from Genesis 25:29-34 (NKJV):
Now Jacob cooked a stew; and Esau came in from the field, and he was weary. And Esau said to Jacob, “Please feed me with that same red stew, for I am weary.” Therefore his name was called Edom. But Jacob said, “Sell me your birthright as of this day.” And Esau said, “Look, I am about to die; so what is this birthright to me?” Then Jacob said, “Swear to me as of this day.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. And Jacob gave Esau bread and stew of lentils; then he ate and drank, arose, and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
This exchange reveals much about Esau’s core nature. Returning starving from a hunt, he indulged his immediate appetites by trading away something of immense, eternal value for a mere bowl of stew. The author makes it clear Esau “despised his birthright” by recklessly giving it up to satisfy momentary cravings. He valued fleshly gratification over spiritual blessing.
While Jacob’s motives were also far from pure, Esau should have known better as the rightful heir. Yet he could not see past the desires of the now to the great responsibility God had for him. This shortsightedness would come to defined Esau.
Losing the Blessing
Years later, the aged and blind Isaac prepared to formally pass on the family birthright blessing to his assumed heir – Esau. But when Rebekah overheard the plan, she conspired with Jacob to deceive Isaac into giving the blessing to the younger twin instead (Genesis 27:1-29).
When Esau returned from hunting at Jacob’s urging and discovered what happened, he was devastated that his brother had now gained both the birthright and blessing. Genesis 27:34 says Esau “cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry”. Though irresponsible earlier with his birthright, Esau had honored and cared for his father. He begged Isaac if any blessing remained for him.
The stolen blessing fueled tremendous resentment in Esau against Jacob. Genesis 27:41 records Esau’s vow: “So Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing with which his father blessed him, and Esau said in his heart, “The days of mourning for my father are at hand; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” This began a long period of estrangement as Jacob fled Esau’s murderous intentions.
Repentance and Reunion
For several decades, Esau harbored anger against his brother. But when Jacob returned from his uncle Laban’s home, he sent gifts and apologies to Esau, now a powerful chieftain in Seir. In a beautiful moment, Esau ran to Jacob and embraced him, weeping:
But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:4 NKJV)
Esau had opportunity to carry out his old threats but instead forgave his brother completely. This reconciliation models how true repentance can overcome even generations of family dysfunction.
The brothers parted ways after this, as Esau settled in Edom while Jacob’s family lived in Canaan. Yet Genesis 33:16 notes that Esau returned to Seir “that same day”, showing he did not let reconciliation turn to unhealthy enmeshment. Forgiveness and relationship were possible without forced closeness.
Lessons from Esau’s Life
Though easily dismissed as the “godless brother”, Esau’s story provides several important lessons for believers today:
1. God’s plans are bigger than our appetites – Esau lived for immediate gratification of his sensual nature. But this cost him a tremendous spiritual inheritance. We must look past fleshly desires to God’s greater calling.
2. Reconciliation requires both repentance and boundaries – Esau forgave his brother yet kept healthy relational distance. True restoration requires both repentance for wrongs committed and wise boundaries moving forward.
3. God uses imperfect people – Despite his serious flaws, God still had a plan to make Esau father of a nation (Genesis 25:23). When we turn from sin, God can use any willing vessel.
4. True maturity values spiritual inheritance over worldly goods – As the author of Hebrews explains, Esau lost God’s blessings by treasuring the temporary over the eternal (Hebrews 12:14-17). We demonstrate maturity when we live for what lasts.
Esau made many mistakes, but his God still redeemed his life in many ways. When treated fairly, Esau emerges as a conflicted but often honorable man who wrestled between his sensual nature and higher spiritual calling. His impulsiveness cost him an incredible inheritance, and he suffered greatly for squandering God’s gifts. But Esau learned to turn anger into forgiveness, becoming an example of repentance and reconciliation. His story provides a sobering reminder to value carefully our spiritual blessings over any temporary gratification the world offers. By learning from Esau, we can avoid missing out on all God has for us.